Moscow's previously troubled relations with NATO have improved greatly over the past two years, but the sleeping elephant in the room – the widening gap between Russian and Western visions for a missile defense shield to defend civilization from rogue attacks – may be about to wake up and turn nasty.
Matters could come to a head Thursday, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, at the first high level meeting of the Russia-NATO Council since ties cooled following Russia's brief summer war with Georgia in 2008.
Last November, at NATO's Lisbon summit, presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed to search for a joint formula to build a system that would protect Eurasia and North America without threatening Russia's aging nuclear deterrent, seen by the Kremlin as the foundation of its national security.
But if anything, the two sides have grown further apart since then, with Mr. Medvedev warning bleakly at a press conference last month that Russia might be forced to withdraw from the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty and potentially plunge Europe into a new arms race if current US plans for antimissile deployments are carried out.
"Russia is growing disappointed because our concerns aren't being taken seriously," says Alexander Khramchikin, deputy director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "It turns out that improvements in our relations are fleeting, based on nothing substantial, while on the big issues NATO does whatever it wants and just makes Russia face the fact."
One sign of improving Russia-NATO ties – and also an example of how the two former cold war antagonists could work together for common ends – was on display this week. The occasion was the first airborne antiterrorist exercise,Vigilant Skies 2011, in which NATO and Russian armed forces integrated activities to prevent a September 11-type attack by tracking a "hijacked" aircraft across much of eastern Europe.
In the exercise, praised by officials on both sides, Russian fighters and ground controllers squired the "target" to the Polish border, where they seamlessly handed it off to the Polish Air Force, along with full information about its route.
But the looming row over missile defense threatens to overwhelm any goodwill generated by practical examples like that.
What Moscow wants
What Moscow wants is either a single antimissile system that's jointly operated – in other words, with a Russian finger on the trigger -- or two separate systems, one for Russia and one for Europe, that do not overlap. Since any missile launched against the West from Iran or North Korea would almost certainly traverse Russian airspace, the US and NATO appear unwilling to agree to limit their own system to radar and interceptor coverage that would end at the Russian border.
The 28 Defense ministers of NATO countries, meeting in Brussels, have yet to agree on the shape of a NATO-operated antimissile umbrella to defend Europe, but the organization's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has already dashed Moscow's hopes for command-level participation in a single system.
"The reason is simple — NATO cannot outsource to nonmembers collective defense obligations which bind its members," he said Tuesday. "I can also assure you – and I have said it publicly on many occasions – that NATO will never attack Russia and we are convinced that Russia sees the alliance in the same light," Mr. Rasmussen added.
The Russians say rhetorical pledges aren't good enough.
"Russia wants commitments and legal guarantees which the Obama administration is not able to provide," says Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert with the Security Center at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Political stubborness on both sides makes it difficult to have a constructive dialogue on this topic."
The Kremlin appears deeply concerned about the Pentagon's "Phased Adaptive" missile defense plan, which envisages about 440 antimissile interceptors based on 43 ships and two European land bases, in Poland and Romania, by the end of this decade. The biggest worry, Russian experts say, is the later phases of the project, which will see large numbers of the advanced SM-3 "Block II" interceptors deployed beginning in 2018.
"The situation completely changes with the realization of the (later) stages of the missile defense plan," Lt. Gen. Andrei Tretyak, of Russia's General Staff, told journalists last month. "This is a real threat to our strategic nuclear forces."
Gen. Tretyak said that exhaustive studies ordered by Russia's Defense Ministry have concluded that the planned deployments would pose a sufficient menace to Russian intercontinental missiles that Russia's strategic parity with the US would be undermined, along with the basic principles of the New START treaty.
Wording inserted into that treaty by Russia specifically allows it to withdraw if the West deploys antimissile weapons "capable of significantly reducing the effectiveness of the Russian Federation's strategic nuclear forces."
A Russian withdrawal from New START might bring all progress in US-Russia relations to a halt, and greatly encourage foreign policy hardliners on both sides.
Obama and Medvedev, both of whom face looming reelection battles, need to avoid that and find a formula that at least allows Russia and the US to continue talking amicably about missile defense cooperation, experts say.
The outcome of Thursday's meeting between Mr. Gates and Mr. Serdyukov will be closely watched for the positive, or negative, signal it sends. "New START was the single real success of the US-Russia reset of relations, and it would be politically bad for both Obama and Medvedev if it were seen to be a failure," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
"But the only sure way to save it is to move forward and tackle the thorny issue of missile defense," he says. "The burning need of both presidents to win a political success can break the logjam in these talks and make the nuts-and-bolts negotiators move along faster. This can be solved, but it will take political will."